In a ranking surprising to no one, the 49ers’ George Kittle was named Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 tight end heading into 2020.
This shouldn’t be a shocker, particularly for San Francisco 49ers fans. But Pro Football Focus‘ recent ranking of the top 15 tight ends entering 2020 listed George Kittle as the No. 1 player at this position.
You knew that already.
The simple stat geeks outside the Niners fanbase could disagree to a point, perhaps arguing Kittle wasn’t the top yards-getter at tight end for 2019. Kittle wasn’t even second on that list after his 1,053 receiving yards on 14 regular-season games played. The top honors there, of course, went to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce (1,229), whose yardage totals ranked fourth among all receivers and PFF ranked No. 2. And the second-most receiving yards for a tight end last year went to the Oakland Raiders’ Darren Waller. Waller ranked fourth on PFF’s list.
Yet Kittle does so much more than just catch the football and run with it afterward. Those are the traditional stats showing up on paper, but Kittle’s impact stretches into the parts of the game not receiving anywhere near the attention. Kittle’s run blocking? It’s elite. Him acting as a decoy to open up opportunities for other players? That box checks off, too.
PFF’s justification for the top spot was simple and valid:
"Kittle gets the nod for the top spot over Kelce. There’s just not much about playing the tight end position that he doesn’t do at an elite level. He tore single coverage apart in 2019, proving too athletic for many linebackers and safeties and too physical for most cornerbacks in one-on-one matchups. His 79.8 run-blocking grade since 2018 puts him up with the run-game specialists at the position. The most impressive thing about Kittle’s game is just how hard it is to bring him to the ground.Prior to Kittle’s emergence over the past two seasons, Kelce was the after-the-catch king at the tight end position. Since 2018, though, Kittle has taken over that title. He has racked up 1,494 yards after the catch over that span (517 more than Kelce in second place), and his 37 broken tackles are seven more than any other non-running back."
What makes this even more impressive is Kittle finished with a 95.0 overall PFF grade in 2019, making him not only the best player for this category and recipient of PFF’s Dwight Stevenson Award but also the highest-graded tight end in PFF history.
As far as PFF’s top-15 tight ends entering 2020, here’s the list:
- George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
- Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
- Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
- Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
- Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles
- Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
- Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers
- Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints
- Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
- Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns
- Evan Engram, New York Giants
- Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
- Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams
- Jonnu Smith, Tennessee Titans
That’s some pretty good company, putting it lightly. And the Niners can hope they develop their own lethal one-two punch at tight end, pairing the 2019 All-Pro with newly acquired Jordan Reed, giving 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan an added dimension to San Francisco’s offense.
Of course, Kittle’s maturation and development into one of the NFL’s budding superstars come with complications. Entering year four of his pro career, Kittle is now up for a would-be extension, although both Kittle’s camp and the 49ers have reached an impasse of sorts. With San Francisco no longer flush with cap space and the 2021 salary cap expected to drop as low as $175 million, keeping Kittle around into next season and beyond is going to be very tricky for the Niners front office.
Yet Kittle is a generational player, and the 49ers must figure out whatever way possible to ensure he remains a cornerstone for the team.
Ideally, that issue is solved sooner than later.